Acquiring a post-secondary education can be a transformative time in a person’s life. The knowledge and experience students gain is often invaluable, yet it can also serve to negatively transform a student’s health and well-being. Many of us have heard of the “freshman fifteen” – a term used to refer to an amount of weight gained during a student’s first year of post-secondary education. However, the conversation about student health and wellness should extend far beyond the topic of weight.
The health challenges that many students experience in the first year of their undergraduate degree are often a symptom of a multitude of systemic issues. These issues can lead to stress, physical inactivity, poor sleeping habits, over-consumption of alcohol and drugs, and poor nutrition. A 2015 study at Western University, found that only 13.2% of students met Canada’s Food Guide Nutrition Guidelines and 17.2% met the Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology’s Guidelines for Physical Activity. The same study found that only 44.8% of students reported that sleep was not an issue. Overall, only 3.3% of students met the recommendations set across all three health behaviours. This lifestyle can have harmful effects on a student’s overall health with long-lasting implications. For Ontario students to succeed in post-secondary education, they need to be equipped to lead both physically and mentally healthy lives. This study suggests that when transitioning to university, many students are not equipped with the skills needed to overcome the barriers to healthy living that post-secondary education can create.
To understand the effects that transitioning into post-secondary education can have on a student’s overall health and wellbeing, we need to dive deeper into the body of your average student!
We begin our journey at the epicentre of knowledge: the brain. Depression, anxiety, behavioural problems, and irritability are few of the many problems you will find here, and students with high academic stress report them more often than any other issue. According to the Council of Ontario Universities, the number of students on college and university campuses with identified mental illnesses has more than doubled over the past five years. This is not surprising. Stress has become a badge of honour among students. It is not uncommon to walk down the halls of any given institution and hear them playing the age old game of “Who is more stressed?”. This glorification of stress is leading students to believe that if they are not “more stressed” than their peers, then they are not working hard enough or are bound to be less successful than others. Stories of students falling asleep in class after pulling an all-nighter are faced with congratulatory responses rather than concern.
The glorification and normalization of stress occurring among university students can lead to dangerous side-effects. With students having to balance any assortment of obligations – academics, schoolwork, financial insecurity, food insecurity, work, extra-curricular activities, social lives, relationships, family life, transitioning into a new lifestyle, etc. – it is no surprise that students have high stress levels. If we assume that everyone has a certain amount of mental resilience to stress, then things like existing mental illness, predisposition to developing mental illness, academic stress, external or relationship stress, and financial or food-related stress can reduce that mental resilience and eventually lead to burnout. While it may take just four or more years to complete an undergraduate degree, the impact of the stress students feel can stay with them for years after. Stress is a normal part of life, but for students, it’s easy for stress to become a chronic issue. For some, it starts with the daily stress of class, midterms, worries about money and food; but as time progresses, these students find themselves developing academic performance-related anxiety, low self-esteem, diminished confidence, etc. Long-term stress can lead to increased risk of mental illness, cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal problems, and a variety of other serious health problems – all of which can stay with a student far past their university degree.
As we continue our journey through the body, we arrive at the one organ that rarely leaves student life unscathed: the liver. The overconsumption of alcohol and drugs has been halmarked as the epitome of student life since the dawn of time. Many Ontario university students have stories that start with the words, “This one time when I was at a party..”. In euro-centric cultures, the consumption of alcohol is often associated with a positive social experience and can be a part of many celebrations and gatherings or seen as a coming of age symbol. However, on university campuses, students often over-consume due to peer pressure, perceived norms, social situations, and stress. While parties can sometimes be seen as a highlight of a person’s university career, even moderate consumption of one to two drinks per day can increase the risk of cancer, epilepsy, pancreatitis, liver cirrhosis, and hypertension. Hazardous binge drinking – which is defined by drinking five or more drinks in a short period of time – can also cause medical conditions like alcohol dependency, liver disease, and hepatitis.
Do you hear that growling noise? This sound signals the next stop along our student body tour: the stomach. For many students, this sound is a common occurrence, since often you will not find the recommended amount of nutrients in their body. As food insecurity among students increases, students all across Ontario are in desperate need of food. In “Hungry for Knowledge: A study assessing the prevalence of student food insecurity on five Canadian post-secondary campuses,” many students told researchers they were skipping meals or not eating for a day. According to the same study, one in four students said food insecurity affected their physical health, while one in five said it was impacting their mental health. It is not uncommon for students to forgo healthy food to pay for books, tuition, and rent.
Food insecurity has been a problem among university students for generations. The stereotypes of university students eating nothing but pasta, rice, and soup for an entire year is a reality for many students across Ontario. Access to cheap and healthy food options on university campuses are few and far between. In my own university community, food services is often criticized for the lack of nutritious food options. With many options being borderline edible. This has become such an issue on my campus that a group of students has taken to social media to voice their concerns through an account aimed at “rating the great hall meals.” Students are concerned about food insecurity on post-secondary campuses. Often, many students are unable to access affordable and nutritious meal options while on campus, and to assist their peers, students are forced to self-fund food banks. Students in need may not be aware of or may feel embarrassed using student-provided food bank resources, which worsens their situations.
It is easy to tell students that if they went to the gym or slept more, they would most likely feel much better all around. While that statement is not inherently wrong, the unfortunate reality is that students often find themselves getting stuck in a vicious cycle. In my experience, one of the most difficult parts of transitioning into university life is the lack of proper orientation and resources needed to be successful. In high school, most students have the luxury of not having to worry about their finances, food, or transportation; for many, these things were taken care of. However, things change upon entering university. Academics become more intense, and suddenly everything comes out of your own wallet. But you also need to study more, socialize, and participate in extracurriculars. This can mean that as students suddenly have to juggle more responsibilities, it becomes more difficult to live a healthy lifestyle. However, individual institutions and the provincial government can play an important role in helping students maintain a level of balance and healthy living. By offering cheaper and healthier food options, more spaces on campus dedicated to studying and sleep, and through investments in campus and community recreation centres, healthy living can be more accessible for students. By investing in student mental health and wellbeing, improving medical accommodations, and creating physically healthier campus environments, students can be supported to place more importance on their health and wellbeing.
Beyond these investments, we also need to be having real conversations about the types of environments we’re fostering on campuses. We need to talk about the harsh realities of food insecurity among university students, and the government needs to invest more in programs that will provide students with the healthy food needed to survive. We need to stop making binge drinking a cornerstone of student life and reshape the way we party. We need to be critical about the glorification of stress and stop equating business with success. In order to make sure that students are being properly equipped with the skills needed to be successful in post-secondary education, student health and wellness needs to be a part of the conversation.
If you have made it this far, thank you for taking this time to think about student health and wellbeing. If you would like to read more about the state of student health and wellness and some of the ways the provincial government and individual institutions can help in creating a healthier environment for students to learn and grow, please check out OUSA’s Student Health and Wellness paper - https://www.ousa.ca/policy_student_health_and_wellness.
(Versaevel, L. Nicole, "Canadian Post-Secondary Students, Stress, and Academic Performance – A Socio-Ecological Approach" (2014). Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. 2657. https://ir.lib.uwo.ca/etd/2657)
Deb, Strodl& Sun, 2015;Verma, Sharma & Larson, 2002
Meister, S.R., Barker, B., & Flores Pajot, M.-C. (2018). Heavy Episodic Drinking Among Post-secondary Students: Influencing Factors and Implications. Ottawa, Ont.: Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction.
Peter Butt, Doug Beirness, Louis Gliksman, Catherine Paradis, and Tim Stockwell, Alcohol and health in Canada: A summary of evidence and guidelines for low risk drinking, Ottawa, ON: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, 2011
Silverthorn, D. (2016). Hungry for knowledge: Assessing the prevalence of student food insecurity on five Canadian campuses. Toronto: Meal Exchange. Retrieved from: http://mealexchange.com